Gujarat’s 2002 Riots: 10 Years Later, Narendra Modi Remains in Spotlight

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Amit Dave / Reuters

Narendra Modi, Chief Minister the Indian state of Gujarat, receives a garland from supporters during a daylong fast in Godhra on Jan. 20, 2012

Ten years after the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat — one of the worst episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence in modern India — all eyes are on the man who led the state then and still leads it today, Narendra Modi. I interviewed him recently in his office in Gandhinagar, for a soon-to-be-published story in the international edition of TIME. He was visibly uncomfortable answering questions about 2002, but he did not walk out of our interview, as he did most famously in a live television interview with Karan Thapar in 2007. He was then and remains now unapologetic. The 2002 violence began on Feb. 27, 2002, with the burning in Godhra of a train car full of activists from a Hindu nationalist group. Immediately after that incident, Modi supported Hindu nationalists’ call for a general strike and allowed them to take the dead bodies from Godhra to Gujarat’s biggest city, Ahmedabad, where they were displayed publicly, two decisions that have been widely criticized as inflaming anti-Muslim sentiment. I asked Modi whether he would have done anything differently, and he said no, insisting that he has always fulfilled his responsibilities. “What I have done is the reason why Gujarat is progressing,” he said.

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The interview will, I hope, help fill out the portraits that have already been drawn so ably in the Indian media this week about Modi, India’s most loved and hated politician. Caravan magazine’s richly reported cover story about Modi is full of fascinating detail about his early life and his unstoppable, ruthless political ambition. There are also some emotionally devastating scenes from Gulburg Society, a housing complex in Ahmedabad where nearly 200 people were killed while taking shelter with a prominent Muslim politician:

The day after the killings at Gulburg Society, piles of bones and unburned corpses were taken by truck to a Muslim cemetery in Dudheshwar. The caretaker, Hajra Beevi, who is now in her 40s, recalled the day 10 years ago when a huge pit had to be dug so 179 people could be buried. “Not only from Gulburg,” she told me. “That day several trucks came from several places. I remember my small son asking if there was an earthquake, and I told him — yes, there was.”

Both the Caravan story and Outlook’s cover story on Modi this week make the point that Modi, however popular he might be and however much he trumpets his state’s 10 years of peace and prosperity, will never escape his association with the 2002 Gujarat violence because its images are indelibly imprinted on the Indian psyche, thanks to television.

Modi is stuck with the taint because Gujarat was the first mega riot in the age of 24-hour TV. There were victims in Mumbai, Surat, Bhagalpur, Jamshedpur, Hyderabad, Moradabad, Bhiwandi, earlier riots in Ahmedabad, a city that actually recorded one of the first big post-Partition riots in 1969. But they were just numbers, death tolls, the faceless victims of communal carnage.

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I’m not so sure about that. India has, for better or for worse, always been able to bury horrific episodes of violence deep inside its collective psyche, and many of the Gujaratis I spoke to, including activists for victims of the 2002 violence, note that Modi would not be the first Indian politician to overcome links to past episodes of communal violence. Several of the Congress Party politicians who were accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, for example, went on to have long careers in politics. Modi’s rise represents, I think, another notion gaining ground in Indian politics — the idea that democracy is standing in the way of economic progress. According to this logic, India needs what Gujarat has — a CEO who rules with a strong hand. He governs by fiat and brooks no dissent even within his own party; this has allowed him to push through whatever it takes to keep the state’s economic engine humming. That has made him supremely popular among Gujarat’s urban middle classes — those who benefit most from growth — even though his support among rural voters has started to fade. In Gujarat, unlike the rest of India, the urban middle-class voter is the most important constituency — it is already the most urbanized state in India, with the largest middle class — giving him a powerful political base of support. If, as so many predict, India goes the way of Gujarat — becoming increasingly urban and with a larger and more politically important middle class — Modi’s future appears suddenly much brighter.

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